Poetic with a Touch of Surreal: Angele Mouteau’s Illustrated Portraits Explore Ambivalence and Ambiguity

“There is nothing more expressive than a portrait.”

Five years have passed since we first published the observational illustrations of Angele Mouteau, the French artist formerly known as 3615. Mouteau’s work has since transitioned through several creative projects and mediums; from oil painting, black and white charcoal drawings and in-situ assemblages, to her most recent series of intimate, pensive portraits. Her style has developed by keeping her approach simple; quirky compositions rooted in sensitivity to detail and a light-heartedness curiosity for the world around her. 

Mouteau traces her affinity for dreamlike aesthetics to her upbringing in Dunkirk, a coastal city marked by the collective spirit of carnival culture.  The colourful memories of her childhood years left a lasting mark on her imagination: a sense of wonder, carnival-goers gathered in entranced dance, dripping makeup, vibrant smells and colours, an electric tension between humor and the grotesque, these are all qualities that resurface frequently in her illustrated scenes. By no coincidence her artistic influences share the same fantastical styles – James Ensor who painted his childhood experiences in a circus family, the darkly surreal artist and film-maker Roland Topor, and the humour-driven John Baldessari to name a few.

Much of Mouteau’s recent work is made up of meditative, wistful portraits of friends and strangers. These are windows into dichotomous worlds: exuberance and vulnerability, simplicity and complexity. Drawing on both photographs and memory, she creates spaces to merge her inner reflections and her external observations, using line and colour to evoke and enhance the emotive characteristics of her subjects. Mouteau’s interest lies in conjuring up a deeply buried sensitivity, to make hidden subtleties reemerge through an expression or gesture.

“I am instinctively attracted to (portraiture) because it is, for me, a simple means of expression. It’s an exercise that allows a whole range of feelings to come through. There is nothing more expressive than a portrait.” 

In a style which feels contemporary yet nostalgic, Mouteau playfully superimposes shades of blue, purple and pink, while paying keen attention to minute quirks and particularities of her subjects. The use of coloured pencils as a medium allows her to maintain a sense of lightness while building juxtaposition through harsher accent strokes. “I like to create ambivalence in my portraits, ambiguity, approaching the heaviness of certain expressions with extreme lightness. This is the case of the portrait of Niki de St Phalle, it is very sad and very colorful at the same time… What I like is that one has the impression that my drawings come to life. My characters are soothed, relaxed, surprised in a moment of total letting go. They are very intimate portraits where I bring out a moment when the subjects seem suddenly relaxed and regain a certain form of serenity.”

Framing is also an essential part of Mouteau’s creative process; she sees deconstruction and reconstruction as a means of better understanding the fundamental essence of her subject material. Her creative process follows an experimentative sequence of fragmenting, highlighting, breaking down and reassembling, in the hopes of capturing a pure expression of unfiltered authenticity. Working like a documentarist, she aims to draw out the inner workings of a situation or subject. “Drawing has always come naturally to me, it allows me to control my surroundings, and to reappropriate real situations by putting them on paper.”

See more of Angele Mouteau’s work on her website or Instagram.